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3 Little-Known Facts About Canada's Military History

It's never too late to shed light on the lesser known parts of Canada's history, pre- and post-Confederation.

To commemorate 150 years since Confederation (also known as #Canada150), the CBC is airing a miniseries, Canada: The Story of Us, which chronicles an anglo-centric version of Canadian history. The series has come under fire for whitewashing Canada's past and putting French-Canadians in a negative light when it's not omitting one of Canada's founding peoples altogether.

CBC subsequently apologized to those who "felt misrepresented" by the miniseries. The CBC is also hosting a series of panel discussions to highlight some stories which are missing from the curriculum in general.

Although it is too late to re-film the series, it's never too late to shed light on the lesser known parts of Canada's history, pre- and post-Confederation.

1. Why does Quebecers' support for overseas interventions and war differ so much from "English Canada?"

After the British took over the land that is now called Canada from the original French colonizers (1700s), the de facto language of the military flipped from French to English. This sidelined a lot of French-Canadians.

In 1914, the Francophone-majority 22nd Battalion was formed. It is known as the "Royal Van Doos," a bastardization of the French word for twenty-two.

During the First World War, the Canadian government needed more troops so they forced citizens to join the military (This is called circumscription or "the draft.") The measure was despised by the vast majority of the Quebecers.

Another slight: Canada didn't have its own flag. Canadian troops fought under the British flag -- something that irked many Francophones.

Bilingualism among the Canadian Forces wasn't addressed until the 1950s.

2. Why are there so few visible minorities at commemorative ceremonies such as the anniversary of Vimy Ridge or on Remembrance Day?

For most of Canada's history, African-Canadians and Asian-Canadian were barred from joining the Canadian military. Like most of Canada's history, the overtly racist policies were rarely written down. However, in 1939, the Royal Canadian Navy stipulated its recruits be "of pure European descent and of the white race." The Royal Canadian Air Force recruited "British subjects and of pure European descent."

There are exceptions. Here are a few:

  • American Revolutionary War (1780s): Approximately 3,000 enslaved Africans were recruited to fight on the British side in exchange for "freedom and land" in Nova Scotia. The names of the volunteers were collected in the "Book of Negroes," which is the title of a prize-winning novel about this tale.
  • War of 1812: Approximately 1,000 black militia men took part in defending Canadian territory from American imperialism.
  • The African Rifles of Victoria, B.C. (1850s): Fifty black immigrants formed the "Victoria Pioneer Rifle Corps" to defend (what is now) British Columbia from U.S. invasion. The recruitment of black people as soldiers -- which was unheard of in Canada -- might have something to do with B.C. Governor James Douglas' African heritage. It seems Sir James Douglas didn't harbour the same anti-black sentiment as his peers.
  • No. 2 Construction Battalion: 600 black men were recruited from across the country and even the U.S. to create a battalion responsible for doing construction jobs. They were barred from combat positions and, as these letters suggest, were "treated unfairly."
  • Royal Canadian Air Force (Second World War): Only 32 black Canadians who served with the RCAF during the Second World War. The RCAF did not allow any visible minorities to
  • join up until March 31, 1942. One of 32 black Canadians who somehow got past the barrier was Canada's first black member of Parliament, Lincoln Alexander (1922-2012). A son of Caribbean immigrants, "Linc" also served as the lieutenant-governor of Ontario from 1985 to 1991.

3. Internment camps mitigating wartime treason by placing citizens in temporary prisons.

In 1941, Japan attacked the American naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. This marked the point where the U.S. formally joined the Second World War. There was fear, credible or not, that Japanese immigrants and their children might have dual allegiances. Therefore, both the U.S. and Canada rounded up citizens of Japanese heritage and forced them into "internment camps" for the duration of the war.

This wasn't the first time Canada had internment camps. The first camp was at Fort Henry in Kingston, Ont. The first prisoners were immigrants from Turkey, Austria, Germany, Austro-Hungaria and Ukraine who made Canada their home. The camp started in Aug. 1914. By the end of that year, approximately 500 Canadians were interned at Fort Henry.

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